Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dr. Beachcombing reflects on supercentenarians in Roman imperial times

So good:
How reliable are these Roman figures? Well the census in question will have been made in good faith. Whether it was answered in good faith is, of course, though another question. Yes, each respondent took an oath and was expected to give age, residence, name of father or patron and a valuation of their property. But given the teeth of the Imperium a Roman Beachcombing would have crossed his fingers and lied about everything, especially how much he had paid for his villa and his Syrian dancing girls.

As to these excessive ages the most comfortable explanation is that we have frequent cases of confused memory and a culture where modern obsessions with birthdays and age was quite unlike our own. Note how many round numbers there are – possibly Pliny rounding up and down, a telling act in itself.

But if true what lives they would have led! Marcus Aponius, for example, would have been born in 66 BC when Roman armies were devastating Asia Minor. He would have been eleven when the news arrived that the legionaries had done the impossible and crossed to mythical Britain. He would have been twenty two when Caesar was stabbed to death in Rome. He would have been thirty three when Augustus made himself the first Roman Emperor and the news came that Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had chosen suicide over dishonour. He would have been a mere whippersnapper at 80 when Augustus finally kicked the bucket. He would have been over a hundred when mad, bad and sensuous Caligula became Emperor…. And a hundred and thirty odd in the year of the Four Emperors when Rome almost tore himself apart.

Oh what stories he would have told!

Or perhaps not…

Beachcombing has always been struck by the fact that super-centenarians tend not to remember the ‘big’ events but rather stick to the minutiae of their own lives – the birth of a child, the death of a husband, the sale of a house, being short-changed by the green-grocer… Forget honey and vitamin pills, this is probably why they live so long. Certainly, Beachcombing suspects that when he is celebrating 140 it will be first kisses and Mrs B announcing a pregnancy that will stand out, while exploding skyscrapers and invasions and counter-invasions in the Middle East fade deservedly into the ether.

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